Charlie, dressed as a tramp for the first time, goes to a baby-cart race in Venice, California. He causes a great deal of trouble and confusion, both on off the track (getting in the way of the cameraman) and on (interfering with the race). He succeeds in irritating both the participants and the public. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
This was the first film in which Charles Chaplin played his most famous character, The Tramp. With only a small number of exceptions, Chaplin would play only The Tramp (or slight variations on the character) on film until The Great Dictator (1940). See more »
There is some disagreement over whether or not this is really the first film in which Chaplin performed as the beloved Tramp, since apparently Mabel's Strange Predicament was filmed a month earlier (although released two days later), but the interest of the film as the first time that audiences saw his famous character, as well as the fact that he was clearly still learning about it himself, remains clear. This was long before the times of screenplays and film scripts, and it is clear from watching the film that it is completely ad-libbed, but what is also clear is not only the talent but also the symbolism and the foreshadowing of Chaplin's later career, which Chaplin could not even have known he was doing himself.
A lot of people have made the mistake of judging this film based on the quality of Chaplin's later work, which is ridiculous not only because the film was made during such an embryonic period of film history, but also because less than a half a year before it was made, Chaplin was acting on stage in England and knew absolutely nothing about film-making. Only a few years before this film was made, a film that depicted a group of people simply walking past the camera or people jumping into a lake was considered successful. The very thought of a "moving picture" had itself not lost its sense of being a novelty, so this film, if anything, was ahead of its time.
What is also worth noting is that, in the world's first look at Chaplin's most famous character, we get such a clear sense of his love of the crowd and his desire to be in front of the camera. It is very important when watching these early films to keep in mind the historical context in which they were made, and not only the films made by Chaplin but from anyone else who was making them during this period. This is the very beginning of film-making in Los Angeles, a rare look at one of the cinema's biggest talents literally learning his talent on camera in a young Hollywood. To write the film off because of simple comedy or time-damaged quality is absurd.
First of all, I am immediately fascinated by the film because of the fact that it was filmed in Venice, California, where I lived until about two months ago. Nothing is recognizable, since it was filmed 90 years ago and most of the setting is covered by crowds of people, but it should also be noted that Chaplin is literally trying on the costume which would soon make him one of the most famous people in the world, and in this six-minute comedy he is wandering around in a film learning his own act. That people today immediately demand high-budget quality from a film like this is ludicrous, to say the least.
It's also interesting to consider the fact that, while the film is very, very simple and the improvised comedy is not complex in any way, it is also very real and fits perfectly as an introduction to Chaplin as an actor and the Tramp as an everyday character. Watch any live, on-location news broadcast today and look at what any jerk standing behind the camera is trying to do, and the realism of some guy at the auto races, the Tramp, wandering in front of the camera and mugging makes even more sense. It's also interesting to see the people in the background, curious about this new film thing, obviously staring directly at the camera and watching the filming.
Chaplin, as he did in Making A Living, his first film, plays a bit of an unlikable character, but only unlikable as compared to what the Tramp would later become. He was a cheat and a swindler in Making A Living, while here he is just an annoying passer-by who won't go away. The film is book-ended by odd clippings of a note to "his best girl," and it is unclear why he "made tracks for the track," but for whatever reason, he was there and made it his mission to be in front of the camera of an increasingly irritated cameraman as much as possible.
The cameraman that Charlie is constantly blocking is played by Henry Lehrman, who directed the first few of Chaplin's comedies and with whom Chaplin never had a very positive relationship, either on screen or off. So many people are immediately put off by the technical crudity or stylistic simplicity or physical decay of films like this, but I think that they are even more fascinating for reasons like this. Filmed more than 90 years ago, it is still a clear look at Chaplin's budding career, both on and off the screen.
Only a few months later, he would begin directing his own films and his nearly unmatched career in film-making would be launched. Anyone with even a mild interest in film history or silent films should not miss this one, as it is a major landmark in cinematic history and the career of one of its biggest stars. For those of you that demand complex plots and polished film-making, maybe you should stick to watching modern film.
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